Michael Shermer documents the decline and fall of Scientific American

November 18, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’ve written about a dozen posts calling out Scientific American for its fulminating wokeness (give me another word if you don’t like that one), in particular its use of op-eds to discuss and promote woke ideological views that have little or nothing to do with science.  A lot of readers here have canceled their subscriptions, but that hasn’t stopped Editor-in-Chief Laura Helmuth from subverting what was once the premier popular science magazine in America, turning it into a “progressive” political mouthpiece whose “real science” articles get lamer and lamer.

Michael Shermer has personal experience of this, as he wrote over 200 columns for the magazine, eventually parting ways because the editors didn’t like the messages of some of his columns. He recounts this, and makes two other points, in his longish column at his new Substack site, “Skeptic“. The title below tells the tale (click below to read for free, but subscribe if you read often).

It’s a tripartite column, making three points.

1.) The magazine has published a lot of woke and relatively nonscientific op-eds over the past few years. We know this becaise I’ve singled out almost all of the ones that Michael mentions (and more), but let’s reiterate a few (with links to the original columns and my critiques):

 “Modern Mathematics Confronts its White Patriarchal Past,”   My critique is here.

“Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy.”  This is a particularly ludicrous column implying that the motivation for creationism is white supremacy. Any fool knows that it’s almost always religion. My critiques are here and here. I do not understand how the editor allowed such an egregious misrepresentation to be published.

“Why the Term ‘JEDI’ is Problematic for Describing Programs that Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” This was a real doozy, unhinged in its claims. My critique is here.

There are others, but these are the three that Shermer singles out. He discusses each at some length, so go see what he says.

2.) Despite the magazine’s claims, inequities in areas or professions are not prima facie evidence for bigotry, racism, or bias. Riffing on the first article above, which uses the paucity of female and black mathematicians as evidence for misogyny and racism, Shermer makes the obvious point that while there is racism in every aspect of human endeavor, academics is about the least racist area of all. That’s shown by the frenetic efforts of nearly every department and college to hire women and minorities. Shermer’s point, which the woke hate (and thus ignore) is an obvious one: that disparities between sexes or races in representaiton could have other causes, such as differential preferences—or a “pipeline” issue that reflects lack of opportunity due to past discrimination but not present day bigotry. Why can’t progressives grasp this point and parse out the various causes of inequities before crying “sexism and racism”? Because they have a preconceived bias that they don’t want addressed with data. It’s an example of what J. B. S. Haldane called “Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem”: “What I say three times must be true.” (This is from Lewis Carroll.)

Shermer supports his arguments—and the woke will really hate this—by showing that there’s a huge disparity between men and women in the number of doctoral degrees awarded—in favor of women. Overall in U.S universities, the percentage of doctorates going to women in 2019 was 52.9% as opposed to 47.1% for men.

Further, the disparity depends on the field. The chart Shermer gives below showing doctorates divided by sex and field of study won’t surprise you:


(Note the near-equality in Biology as well as in the Arts and Humanities). But Shermer further points out that the disparities favoring women are never cited as examples of anti-male bias, while those that favor men are cited as examples of sexism. Shermer notes:

When the data is [sic] presented in a bar graph rank ordered from highest to lowest percentages for females earning doctorates (below), the claim that the fields in which women earn lower percentages than men can only be explained by misogyny and bias is gainsaid by the top bars where the valance is reversed, unless we are to believe that only in those bottom fields are faculty and administrators still bigoted against women whereas those in the top fields are enlightened.

3.) Shermer was eventually booted from the magazine, ending his column, because he adduced facts and explanations that the woke editors didn’t like. Shermer’s conflicts with the editors grew gradually, starting when he pointed out that people can get false impressions of the prevalence of a phenomenon if they pay attention only to coincidences and not exceptions. He uses as an example the “horror movie curse”, in which stars of horror movies are said to suffer later mishaps more often that stars of other movies. He notes that “those seeing supernatural intervention” in this “are remembering only the horror movies that seemed cursed (‘hits’) and forgetting the other three possibilities (‘misses’, ‘false alarms’, and ‘correct rejections’ in Signal Detection Theory parlance.”

That’s true (Steve Pinker has made this point about the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is smaller than we think because the news tends to play up the bloody stuff an ignore people falling in bathtubs and the like). But the editors got upset when Shermer made a similar point about child abuse with a similar four-celled dissection (below). As he said in the column, in a bit that wasn’t published:

I then added a more serious example of the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions, provided to me by the renowned social psychologist Carol Tavris, citing her skepticism about the theory that sexually abusive parents were themselves sexually abused as children. This was a common explanation until researchers pointed out that most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children, and that most abusive parents were not abused as children (see the 2×2 matrix below from my PPT lecture).

Not that got the editor’s hackles up, because even though there is a possible confirmation bias here, it involves sexual abuse and we must ignore other explanations. As the editor said:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for a revision on your November Skeptic column. The overall idea is sound—another example I often think of is “I was just thinking about you—and then you called! It’s ESP!” But we’re unwilling to publish a piece that suggests—even in a quote attributed to someone else [Carol Tavris]—that sexual harassment and the phenomenon of abused children growing up to be abusers are less of a problem than most people imagine. Heuristics are all very well, but unlike with spooky deaths related to horror movies, these involve real harm to real people.

But it could be less of a problem than most people imagine, just like the “horror movie curse” example.

Shermer responded in part:

I’ll find other examples and send you another draft, but the point is NOT that sexual harassment or abuse is not as large a problem as we think (or that its effects are not as harmful as we thought); the point is that in our attempt to understand why, say, the sexual abuse of children happens, the hypothesis that their abusers were themselves abused as children is gainsaid by the cell in which all those kids who were abused as children grow up to not only not be abusers, but to be loving parents who wouldn’t dream of harming their children; and the other cell in which abusive adults were not abused as children.

I understand why we need to be sensitive to victims of abuse, but from a purely scientific hypothesis-testing perspective, it doesn’t serve society to refuse to consider the other cells in the matrix that contain disconfirming evidence of the hypothesis just because someone is committed to the hypothesis that abused children grow up to be abusers, and abusive adults were abused as children. The evidence shows otherwise. It should be okay to point that out.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact sussing out why people sexually abuse children is far more important than studying the “horror movie curse”. Analysis of the former must take into account biases, and the editor didn’t like that—simply because the topic was sexual abuse.

Matters came to a head (I don’t like that phrase as it’s about boils and pimples) when Shermer submitted a column about tribalism, which he reprints in its entirety. and made what today is considered a serious mistake: citing Martin Luther King’s dictum that people should by judged by their character rather than their pigmentation. (This is now verboten, as it contravenes the dominant narrative that we must see color.) Shermer was given one “farewell” column and then handed his walking papers.

The interchange between Michael and his editors gives us some insight into the termites chewing into the edifice of Scientific American. My prediction is that unless the editors go back to its original format and lay off the propagandizing, the magazine will fold. After all, you can read about social justice and wokeness nearly everywhere, including Teen Vogue, but Scientific American was once unique.

h/t: Luana

The full paper on which saints to pray to when you’ve got Covid, and a laudatory reply

August 29, 2021 • 9:45 am

Yesterday I wrote about an unbelievably weird paper in the Elsevier journal Ethics, Medicine and Public Health. It reports a survey on Facebook and Twitter by three European scientists, curious about which saints respondents thought were the best ones to pray to for those who get Covid. This wasn’t just a survey of Catholic opinion, but was presented almost as a crowdsourced guide about which saints to call upon should you get the virus. The title is below, but presents only bits of the paper, and I couldn’t access the full thing because our library doesn’t get that journal. To see the snippets, click below:

Further, trying to ascertain if this paper was real by looking on the journal’s website (yes, it’s real), I also found that there was a “comment”, which I automatically assumed was a critical letter. (Click on screenshot below to see the site, but again, it’s paywalled):

Now, however, several kind readers have gotten hold of both the entire original paper and the reply, which you might be able to see via judicious inquiry. The short original paper is as bad as I suspected from the snippet, and the letter is completely weird, as it praises the original paper and then suggests that the authors left out one important saint. San Gennaro, known to Catholics as St. Januarius. (You might recall that the young Godfather murders Don Fanucci during the San Gennaro festival in New York City, with the fireworks masking the gunshots.)

First, the original paper. The authors surveyed, over just four days, followers on Twitter and Facebook. They asked the following question (it’s not really a question; this paper badly needs editing for English):

“Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”

They asked 15,840 people (92% from Europe) and got 1158 responses. There’s no information on the sex, age, or cultural background of the respondents.  Here are the answers:

St. Rita is said to practice self-mortification, had a difficult marriage, and “is considered patron saint of lost causes.” The next two, Saints Roch and Sebastian, are seen as protectors from the plague. The authors go on to discuss the saints not only as if they were real, but as if the miracles they were said to perform were real! An example (I can’t copy from the pdfs so am giving screenshots).

Bow wow! Here’s your loaf!

And here’s the paper’s summary, which certainly lends credibility to my guess that the authors do think this list will help people get over the virus. You could argue that it’s just a sociological report of what Catholics think, but I suspect there’s more behind it.

As for the “letter,” it’s not a critique, but praises the “brilliant” paper of Perciaccante et al. and then adds that the authors missed an important saint—perhaps because some regions of Italy that worship St. Gennaro (e.g., Naples) weren’t included in the survey. They end by saying that there are conflicting results about whether prayer “works” in curing disease, but that it does make people feel psychologically better. Here’s the whole thing, written by three Italian researchers:

Note that the miraculous liquefaction of St. Januarius’s blood is taken for granted as a real miracle. (See here for naturalistic explanations.)

Two papers are cited (#3 and 4) that, say Brancaccio et al., show conflicting effects of remote intercessory prayer on the outcome of coronary patients. The first coronary care paper is well known, and found no effect (in fact, there was one negative effect of remote intercessory prayer on healing). The second, which I just scanned, appears to give marginal positive results, with the probability that the “improved” effect of prayer could be due to chance alone being 4% (lower than 5% is considered significant, but the authors did not correct for using multiple indices of healing, which one would normally do using a Bonferroni test). The effect of prayer, even accepting their wonky probability, is very small.

Regardless, even if researchers are going to waste their time trawling for marginally significant effects of prayer on healing, do they need to also investigate which saints should be prayed to? What is the patron saint of heart issues? Did the intercessory prayers evoke that individual, or were the prayers generic? The paper doesn’t say, so apparently the selected “pray-er” was just given the first name of the patient and told to go to town.

Given the possibility that prayer promotes favorable medical outcomes, I’m surprised that doctors and scientists aren’t doing tons of research on this important issue. I wonder why.

More mishigas at Scientific American: A claim that opposition to evolution comes from white supremacy, not religion

July 11, 2021 • 10:00 am

As Scientific American continues its inexorable circling of the drain, it’s approaching the drainhole itself. For, from a week ago, we have an op-ed by Allison Hopper asserting that Americans’ rejection of evolution—73% of Americans are either straight-up Biblical creationists (40%) or think God helped guide evolution (33%)—is due not to religion as many suppose, but to white supremacy. It’s all about racism, Jake! (I was not the first to proposed the religion-is-the-main-cause of rejecting-evolution thesis, but laid out the case, with supporting data, in a paper in Evolution in 2012.)

Hopper rejects that thesis in her Sci Am article, saying that the idea that people reject evolution because of religion is a “lie”. To wit:

“I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies. “

Well, she’s dead wrong about her thesis, as I’ll argue below, but also in her claim that evolution denialism “perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.” It does nothing of the sort! You really have to distort your thinking to claim that people are prone to deny evolution because they’re white supremacists, much less embrace the idea that creationism (which is what I’ll call “evolution denial”, since they’re pretty much equivalent in America) creates “violence against Black bodies”. What kind of violence? Has any black person been harmed in the name of creationism? And what is it with this “black bodies” trope?  That seems to me distinctly unwoke, since the trend in “progressive” language is to emphasize the humanity of oppressed people, i.e., “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves”. Saying “black bodies” instead of “black people” clearly dehumanizes people, and I deplore it.

But I digress. Before we examine Hopper’s arguments, such as they are, here are her bona fides from the article:

Allison Hopper is a filmmaker and designer with a master’s degree in educational design from New York University. Early in her career, she worked on PBS documentaries. More recently, she’s been creating content for young people on the topic of evolution. She has presented on evolution at the Big History Conference in Amsterdam and Chautauqua, among other places.

And here’s her article, which you can read for free by clicking on the screenshot below:

Hopper is trying here to jump on the current bandwagon that everything is about race, including rejection of evolution. And, she implies, once we acquaint people with the fact that creationism is a product not of religion but of white supremacy, they’ll give up their creationism and embrace evolution.

Her argument goes like this:

1.) Many people don’t realize that all humans descend from African ancestors (true).

2.) Those African ancestors had dark skin. (Also true.) However, in their case “black” or “brown” does not equate with “oppressed”, since there were no white people to oppress them. Different species of hominin may have oppressed each other, but that had nothing to do with pigmentation.

3.) Importantly, human culture sprang from dark-skinned ancestors who had religion, language, fire, and tool use. These were the foundations, argues Hopper, for the culture we have today. It’s true that these bases (except, perhaps, for religion and language, about whose origin we know virtually nothing) probably sprang from dark-skinned ancestors. But other features of modern culture evolved in Europe and the Middle East, where natural selection had already been lightening skin color. (This constant emphasis on the overweening importance of skin color repels me.) At any rate, agriculture and its attendant amenities of civilization probably arose about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East among people who were not black (but may have been brown) and further developed by people of all colors, including whites and Asians. But who cares? Only someone obsessed with racism and determined to make it the basis for everything bad.

4.) Hopper cares, for she says that evolution’s truth dispels the Biblical story that Adam and Eve (who were supposedly white) were instrumental in creating black people, who descended from a bad person—Cain—who killed his brother. This “mark of Cain” thesis that supposedly connects creationism with white supremacy, is advanced in several ways by Hopper:

Science education in the U.S. is constantly on the defensive against antievolution activists who want biblical stories to be taught as fact. In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s. Ever since then, entrenched racism and the ban on teaching evolution in the schools have gone hand in hand. In his piece,What We Get Wrong About the Evolution Debate, Adam Shapiro argues that “the history of American controversies over evolution has long been entangled with the history of American educational racism.”

In fact, anybody who looks at the data on creationism sees immediately its connection with the Biblical creation story (not including Cain)—the view that God created everything almost instantaneously, with humans made in His/Her/Their image. Everybody promoting creationism and intelligent design is religious, and all creationist organizations are religious at bottom.

In my life I’ve met hundreds of creationists, and every one of them was religious. (David Berlinski, whom I haven’t met, may be the one exception, but that’s just one person and he may be dissimulating about religion anyway.) They make no bones about their views, either. Yet in none of these people have I heard anything about white supremacy. Sure, there may be racists among creationists—there has to be given the connection between Evangelical Christianity and the South—but you’d have to essentially make things up to argue that creationism comes from white supremacy and that its connection with religion is “a lie.” (At any rate, were Hopper’s story of Cain and Abel true, it still shows a connection between creationism and religion.)

But wait! There’s more:

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

There are those “Black bodies” again.  But what are the “lethal” effects? Were black bodies really killed because white bigots and lynchers were motivated by a refusal to accept our ancient ancestry? I doubt it, and I doubt whether they were motivated by religion, either. They were motivated, I believe, by tribalism and the heritage of slavery with its attendant beliefs that blacks were inferior beings.

In fact, when Hopper talks about the dearth of children’s books on evolution, she inadvertently admits that religion (not the story of Cain and Abel!) is tilting kids towards creationism:

If you go on Amazon and look up “children’s books on evolution” you will find about 10–15 relevant titles. This is in contrast to the hundreds of children’s books on other scientific subjects such as chemistry, astronomy and other less controversial subjects. I found only one book on evolution for preschoolers, called Grandmother Fish. The author had to self-fund the book through Kickstarter.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of children’s books available on Amazon that focus on biblical origin stories. Science deniers are pumping money into a well-funded antievolution machine. In 2007, the creationists built their own Bible-themed museum and amusement park. What they understand is that to reach young children you need music, colorful characters and celebration.

Kids get their religion long before they learn evolution, and by the time they’re presented with Darwin and his successors, they’ve had at least a decade of indoctrination in the Bible, with many being Biblical literalists. They are effectively immunized against evolution. Racism is a separate issue.

In the end, Hopper argues that if we can just tell the story of evolution properly, including that we all came from Africa and our earliest ancestors were dark-skinned, creationism would go away:

. . . even in the current literature about human origins that we do have, the end point of evolution is often depicted as a white man carrying a spear. This image not only eliminates our African heritage but also erases women and children from the picture. Because evolution is foundational knowledge, we need the story to be told in many different ways, by many different voices.

As we move forward to undo systemic racism in every aspect of business, society, academia and life, let’s be sure to do so in science education as well. Embracing humanity’s dark-skinned ancestors with love and respect is key to changing our relationship to the past, and to creating racial equity in the present. These ancient people made the rest of us possible. Opening our hearts to them and embracing them as heroic, fully human and worthy of our respect is part of the process of healing from our racist history.

I wasn’t aware that the teaching of evolution was systemically racist; do teachers really deny that our ancestors were African? And does Hopper really believe that accepting that will get rid of racism? Really? Even Darwin was a monogenist, saying that all groups of humans arose from a single ancestor who probably lived in Africa. Did that get rid of racism? I don’t think so, though some people think Darwin’s monogenism was part of a strategy to combat racism.

(I can’t get over my gag reflex when hearing that we need to embrace our ancestors with “love and respect”, since I don’t know that they were either lovable or respectable)

Okay, now what’s the evidence against Hopper’s thesis? It’s strong:

a.) Ask people why they think evolution didn’t happen. Many will say because they believe the Bible or the Qur’an. Nobody will say because it shows that white people are superior. (Of course, you can say they won’t admit their bigotry.)

b.) Every creationist organization from Answers in Genesis to the Discovery Institute is based on religion, while we find no creationist organizations whose platform is white supremacy. As I said, the two are tangentially connected because of the religious and white-supremacist nature of the American South, but this is a matter of correlation, not causation.

c.) Most telling: several surveys, listed and summarized in this paper, show that blacks and Hispanics deny evolution more than do whites. This is the opposite of what Hopper predicts, but makes sense under the “religion-first” hypothesis, since blacks and Hispanics tend to be more religious than whites in general.

d.) There is a highly statistically significant negative correlation between the religiosity of 34 European countries and their acceptance of evolution, as I noted in my Evolution paper. Most of these countries are nearly all white, save France and Germany, which have high acceptance of evolution (and more black people than, say, Iceland or Demark). The US is near the bottom in accepting evolution (I’ll give the data in a minute), not because the U.S. has a higher percentage of whites than most European countries—it doesn’t—but because the U.S. is far more religious then Europe.

Here’s the correlation I found. The U.S., labeled, is next to last in accepting evolution, while below us lies only Turkey: a Muslim country that, by the way, happens to comprise many “people of color”. Note that the most religious countries, to the right, are the least accepting of evolution. I discuss issues with these data (nonindependence, etc.) in the Evolution paper.

And here are the data from Miller and Scott (2006) that I used to make the plot for my own paper:

The religiosity of these countries, which appears in the graph above, came from other sources given in my Evolution paper.

The thing to note is that virtually all these countries are white, and yet the correlation holds across them all. As I said, the countries with the highest proportion of evolution rejectors (those at the bottom)—are not only the most religious, but also probably contain the highest proportion of people of color. This is what the religious hypothesis proposes, but it goes counter to Hopper’s thesis, which predicts that the whitest countries should be the least accepting of evolution, for rejection of evolution is a sign of white supremacy. (Of course, you could argue that white supremacy will be manifested only in countries with a substantial proportion of black people, but that’s pushing it.) In fact, Hopper’s argument is a post facto confection to support anti-racism, and appears to make no predictions that seem to stand up to scrutiny.

It seems to me that Hopper is not only deeply misguided, but also motivated by ideology, tying creationism directly to white supremacy, and almost completely dismissing its connection to religion. As I always say, “You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.” Hopper seems to have deliberately ignored data inimical to her hypothesis, which of course is what one does when afflicted with the kind of confirmation bias that comes with wokeness.

And it’s just another sign that whoever’s in charge of Scientific American is letting through ill-informed and erroneous material.  What has happened to that once-respectable magazine? Is there no longer an audience for the lively yet informative articles they used to publish? Are they becoming the Evergreen State of popular science magazines?

h/t: Eli

Scientific American withdraws anti-Semitic op-ed

June 16, 2021 • 10:00 am

Nine days ago I wrote about a published op-ed in Scientific American in which eight healthcare workers took out after Israel, not only blaming that nation for the war and all the deaths of Palestinians, but also for its failure to provide healthcare and vaccinations to Palestinians, as well as for various other deeds. The problem was that most of the accusations were either distortions or outright lies that should have been caught by any knowledgeable editor. Further, the authors failed to call out Hamas and its supporters for any misdeeds, including firing the rockets that started the last conflict. As I wrote at the time:

It’s an op-ed piece apparently written by a group of Palestinian BDS activists (one author wishes to be anonymous). purveying the usual distortions, omissions, and outright lies.  If there were a counter piece refuting those lies (there is below, but not at Sci Am), it would be somewhat better, but not much. Instead, the op-ed is linked to a Google Document petition (surely not posted by Sci Am) that you can sign in solidarity with Palestine.

(Because I consider the BDS movement to be based on anti-Semitism, this is why I’ve given this post the title I did. If you want to argue that the op-ed wasn’t anti-Semitic, or that BDS isn’t, please do so in the comments.)

I also beefed about Scientific American‘s entering the fray by publishing not only an overtly political/ideological article, but a distorted one. There was no fact-checking on the part of the magazine, and there should have been given its obvious lies. Most important, scientific magazines should not be in the business of publishing such editorials, whether they be anti- or pro-Israel. My original critique is below (click on screenshot), and I noted that a better job of dismantling the op-ed’s claims was done in an article by CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (there’s an update at the top of that link).

Here’s my piece:

And if you click on the screenshot to the Sci. Am original op-ed piece, you now find that it’s no longer there. It’s been replaced by this terse statement:

This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed.”

This is what you see (look below the photo):


Sadly, the article wasn’t archived, at least not that I know of, but you can get some meaty quotes, and a summary, from the CAMERA post, whose update now notes that the op-ed has been removed. (UPDATE: in the first comment below, reader Mark found an archived version of the op-ed here.)

Well, I’m glad that the editors had the savvy to deep-six the article given that it was full of lies and outside the magazine’s ambit, but perhaps they should have moved it to a place where it could still be read. In general I’m opposed to simply erasing articles without archiving them, as it erases history. One might, however, justify the removal not on the grounds of erasing an invidious piece, but because the piece was full of lies, ergo it shouldn’t be considered decent journalism of any stripe.

My only remaining question is why on earth was this published in the first place?  Yes, we know that many popular-science as well as professional scientific magazines and journals are going woke, but this piece was beyond the pale. And of course its distortions and lies aren’t mentioned as a reason for its removal; only that the article “fell outside the scope of Scientific American.” Still, kudos to editor Laura Helmuth for approving what was done. But it’s too much to hope that other editors or science magazines will follow her lead.

The petition is still up, though, but it was not sponsored by Scientific American and the magazine bears no responsibility for that.

A new paper by a psychoanalyst looks like a hoax, but isn’t

June 11, 2021 • 10:30 am

When I first saw the paper below, which is still on the pages of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association—a journal I expected to be peer-reviewed journal and have a modicum of rigor even if it is about psychoanalysis—I thought it was a joke: a hoax “grievance” paper à la Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian.  But I don’t think it is. Instead, it’s a horrid, racist gemisch of obscurantist chest-beating in the guise of antiracism. Click on the screenshot to read it, or download the pdf here. (The full reference is at the bottom of the page.)

Just three quotes, besides the abstract above, give the tenor of the paper:

Parasitic Whiteness infiltrates our drives early on. The infiltrated drive binds id-ego-superego into a singular entity, empowered to dismiss and override all forms of resistance. The drive apparatus of Whiteness divides the object world into two distinct zones. In one, the Whiteness-infiltrated drive works in familiar ways—inhibited, checked, distorted, transformed—susceptible, that is, to standard neurotic deformations. In the other, however, none of this holds true. There the liberated drive goes rogue, unchecked and unlimited, inhibited by neither the protests of its objects nor the counterforces of its internal structures.

. . .Parasitic Whiteness generates a state of constantly erotized excitement, a drift toward frenzy.1 Fix, control, and arouse; want, hate, and terrorize. Whiteness resides at this always volatile edge, in a state of permanent skirmish, always taking on the never obliterated resistances of its nonwhite objects. Opaque to itself and hyperconscious of those objects, Whiteness pursues the impossible, a stable synthesis, an end point. It can therefore never rest. Blindly, then, it continues forward, unendingly bent on conquering. There seems no backward path, no mode of retreat. It faces an interminable forward march. If only it could totally and permanently transform these objects, turn the once feared and unknown into the now reduced and measured; turn the once unique and overwhelming into the now fungible and owned.

Whiteness originates not in innocence but in entitlement.

. . . Psychoanalytic work, then, need not properly target Whiteness itself here. Instead, it can effectively target the psychic receptor sites that provide Whiteness the interior vertical mapping on which it depends. The vertical map disrupts the identificatory bond that might once have bound subject to object. The bond persists, though, reshaped and hardened now into a vertical format. Identification morphs into disidentification, similarity into difference, affectionate care into sadistic cruelty. Diminish the spread and influence of these interior vertical receptor sites and, indirectly, the parasite of Whiteness is dislodged, loosed, itself becoming susceptible to exposure, as a differentiated and alien presence. Psychoanalytic work, in its most radical, fundamental, and, finally neutral forms, targets any and all of the effects of vertical mapping. Where verticality was, there horizontality will be.

Ah, the termites are dining well!  Imagine if this paper used any ethnicity other than “whiteness”. It would not have been publishable, and the author would have been damned and demonized forever for racism. Indeed, I’m baffled why the editor of this journal even published the screed. It appears to say nothing beyond whiteness being a parasitic infection of the mind that needs to be cured by psychoanalysis (of course).

Is this a joke or a hoax? I don’t think so. The author has written quite a few articles for the journal and is identified at the article’s end this way:

Faculty, New York Psychoanalytic Institute [NYPI]; co-founder of the Green Gang, a four-person collective working with climate change denial and the relation between the human and the natural worlds; Chair, Program Committee, American Psychoanalytic Association.

Indeed, he’s listed as a faculty member on the New York Psychoanalytic Institute website. He’s a real person!

Here’s a photo of Moss from the NY Post:

Now there’s a different Donald Moss, another physician, who hastened to tweet that he wasn’t the guy who wrote this execrable paper. I don’t see the “correction and apology” on the website, though.

Lee Jussim, a psychologist at Rutgers, points out the similarities between Nazi racism and Moss racism:

I don’t want to delve further into this steaming pile of psychoanalytic scat, as you can read the paper for yourself, and perhaps delve further into the writings of Dr. Moss. But you can conclude two things. First, this Donald Moss is off the rails, perhaps in need of treatment himself (but not psychoanalysis!). Second, the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association has no credibility and, apparently, no standards.

I wonder what his colleagues at the NYPI are thinking. . .

______________

Moss, D. 2021. On Having Whiteness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 69:355-371.

Scientific American publishes misleading and distorted op-ed lauding Palestine and demonizing Israel, accompanied by a pro-Palestinian petition

June 7, 2021 • 12:30 pm

Well, the latest scientific journal or magazine to go to hell in a handbasket is Scientific American, which under the editorial guidance of Laura Helmuth has published a putrid piece of pure pro-Palestinian propaganda. It’s an op-ed piece apparently written by a group of Palestinian BDS activists (one author wishes to be anonymous). purveying the usual distortions, omissions, and outright lies.  If there were a counter piece refuting those lies (there is below, but not at Sci Am), it would be somewhat better, but not much. Instead, the op-ed is linked to a Google Document petition (surely not posted by Sci Am) that you can sign in solidarity with Palestine.

First of all, a science magazine has no business taking an ideological stand like this, particularly one replete with lies and distortions. What was Scientific American thinking? Do they fancy themselves to be Mother Jones? Read for yourself.

Here’s the petition (click on screenshot)

The article has the usual palaver, but its biggest distortion is accusing Israel of war crimes and targeting civilians, when the truth is precisely the opposite: during the recent skirmish, the Palestinians fired 4,360 rockets deliberately targeting civilians, while Israel avoided civilian killing to the best of its ability while trying to disable Hamas. Israel issues warnings before attacking; does Palestine do that? No, because their aim is to kill civilians without warning. How come nobody, least of all these authors, mention that?

The article decries the “disproportionality” of deaths, when many Palestinian dead (perhaps more than half) were Hamas fighters, and the op-ed seems almost regretful that more Israelis did not die (the “disproportionality” argument makes little sense when one side has an Iron Dome and the other side fires rockets and has no defense). There is no mention of Palestinian war crimes, which include not just the targeting of civilians but the use of human shields that guarantee civilian deaths.

The article blames Israel for not supplying healthcare, including COVID vaccines,  to the Palestinians. But in fact the Oslo Agreement specifies that responsibility for healthcare in the Palestinian Territories resides solely with the Palestinian Authority, and that specifically includes vaccinations. (It also doesn’t mention that Israel did supply a lot of COVID vaccine to Palestine, even to its leaders.) The article supports the BDS movement, a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate the state of Israel. The article indicts Israel for being an apartheid state, when in fact the Palestinian Territories are FAR more of an “apartheid state” than is Israel, for Palestine oppresses gays, atheists, apostates, and women, and forbids Jews to live in the Territories or buy property there (the latter is a capital crime). Plenty of Arabs, of course, live in Israel.

The article doesn’t mention the infamous Palestinian “pay for slay” program, in which the families of terrorists who kill Israeli Jews, civilians or soldiers, get ample financial rewards while in prison, and get jobs when they get out. (Here’s a recent example.) How godawful is that? Well, we don’t bring up things like that when we’re defending Palestine.

The Scientific American op-ed is so outstandingly stupid that one can only wonder what the editors of the magazine were thinking when they published it. Did they not do any fact-checking? Or are they abysmally ignorant of what has and is happening in the Israel/Palestine conflict? Why did they “take sides” by publishing the first political op-ed I’ve seen in the magazine (granted, I may have missed some). This angers me because the lies are as invidious as Trump’s claims that the election was “stolen.”

Well, I won’t go on, for the Scientific American screed is fully taken apart by the article below from CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis). And yes, by indicting Israel for “war crimes” while completely ignoring the crimes of Hamas and lying to or misleading readers, the op-ed becomes a totally one-sided propaganda piece. Read it for yourself, and then read the article below. It’s a good thing I don’t read Sci. Am.; dreck like this gets called to my attention by readers. I don’t think calling the Sci Am op-ed “shilling for terrorists” to be too far off the mark.

The article also refutes the op-ed’s claim that Israel has “decimated” the Palestinian healthcare system, which in fact is better than ever. (And it would be a very good system if Palestine would start spending money on healthcare instead of offensive rockets, and had it accepted one of Israel’s many offers for a two-state solution.) Do the authors mention that every year thousands of Palestinians, including Hamas leaders and their relatives, are treated in Israeli hospitals as a gesture of good will? No, of course not.

An op-ed so woefully ignorant or biased doesn’t belong in any respectable venue, much less in Scientific American. But I guess we can expect more to come. If you have any respect for the truth, you might ponder if you want to continue subscribing.

The intellectual vacuity of New Scientist’s evolution issue: 4. The supposed importance of genetic drift in evolution

September 29, 2020 • 10:45 am

Genetic drift is the random change in frequencies of alleles (forms of a gene, like the A, B, and O alleles of the Landsteiner blood-group gene) due to random assortment of genes during meiosis and the fact that populations are limited in size. It is one of only a handful of evolutionary “forces” that can cause evolution—if you conceive of “evolution,” as many of us do, as “changes in allele frequencies over time” (“allele frequencies” are sometimes called “gene frequencies”). Other forces that can cause evolutionary change are natural selection and meiotic drive.

Genetic drift certainly operates in populations, for it must given that populations are finite and alleles assort randomly when sperm (or pollen) and eggs are formed. The question that evolutionists have been most concerned with is this: “How important is genetic drift in evolution?”  We know that, if populations are sufficiently small, for instance, drift can actually counteract natural selection, leading to high frequencies of maladaptive genes. This is what has happened in small human isolates, such as religious communities like the Amish and Dunkers.  It’s not clear, though, that this has happened with any appreciable frequency in other species.

Drift was once implicated by Sewall Wright, a famous evolutionist, in his well-known “shifting balance theory of evolution“, which maintained that drift was essential in producing many adaptations in nature. That theory was once influential, but has now fallen out of favor, and I take credit for some of that (see my collaborative critiques here and here).

Related to this are various theories that see genetic drift and its maladaptive effects as crucial in forming new species (e.g., the “founder-flush” theory of speciation). In my book with Allen Orr, Speciation, we analyze these ideas in chapter 11 and conclude that drift has been of minimal importance in speciation compared to natural selection.

Finally, genetic drift was an important part of Steve Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, for it was the force that allowed isolated populations to undergo random phenotypic change, tumbling them from one face of “Galton’s polyhedron” to another. This was one of the explanations for why change in the fossil record was jerky. Well, the fossil record may well be punctuated, but Gould’s theoretical explanation was pretty soundly dismantled by population geneticists, including several of my Chicago colleagues (see this important critique).

While one can cite examples of genetic drift operating in nature, like the expected loss of genetic variation in very small populations, in my view it hasn’t been of much importance in speciation, morphological and physiological evolution, or in facilitating adaptive evolution by pushing populations through “adaptive valleys.” Even the view that it has made species vulnerable to extinction by reducing the pool of genetic variation needed to adapt to environmental change has been exaggerated. I know of no extinctions caused by genetic drift, though I haven’t checked on the cheetah example lately (they were said to be highly inbred because of small populations, but I’m not sure that this is what makes them vulnerable to extinction). In fact, for conservation purposes, I believe the importance of loss of genetic variation through drift has been much less than the importance of reduced population size itself that makes populations vulnerable to extinction because individuals can’t find mates or overgraze their environment, or simply because if you’re a small population, random fluctuations in numbers are more likely to make you go extinct. This is demographic rather than genetically based extinction.

But drift has been important in molecular evolution, causing a turnover of gene variants over long periods of time. If those variants are “neutral”—that is, they are equivalent in their response to natural selection—then they will turn over at a roughly linear rate with time, and the changes can be used as a sort of “molecular clock” to estimate divergence times between species. This kind of molecular divergence has been used to construct family trees of species as well as to estimate the times when species diverged. This is a fairly new usage, for such molecular tools and estimates have been available only since the 1960s.

On to the New Scientist bit about drift in its latest issue, a special on evolution.

The 13-point section about how new findings will expand our understanding of evolution includes section 9 about drift, called “Survival of the luckiest.” It first recounts, accurately, how drift operates, but then exaggerates its importance by mentioning two studies of urban populations of animals, populations that in principle should show more drift than wild populations because populations living in cities are small and fragmented. The section says nothing about any of the things I just told you, which is what evolutionists have really been concerned about with respect to genetic drift.

Here’s the entirety of how New Scientist says drift is revising our view of evolution (the author of this section is Colin Barass):

Biologists have known about genetic drift for a century, but in recent years they realised that it could be especially common in urban settings where roads and buildings tend to isolate organisms into small populations. A 2016 study of the white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus, in New York supported the idea. Jason Munshi-South at Fordham University, New York, and his colleagues discovered that urban populations have lost as much as half of their genetic diversity compared with rural populations.

Last year, Lindsay Miles at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada, and her colleagues published a review of evidence from about 160 studies of evolution in urban environments, in organisms ranging from mammals and birds to insects and plants. Almost two-thirds of the studies reported reduced genetic diversity compared with rural counterparts, leading the researchers to conclude that genetic drift must have played a role. “Genetic drift can definitely be a significant driver of evolution,” says Miles.

These findings have big implications, because populations lose their ability to adapt and thrive if they lack genetic diversity for natural selection to work on. Of course, genetic drift isn’t confined to urban settings, but given how much urbanisation is expected to grow, the extra threat it poses to wildlife is concerning. It highlights the need to create green corridors so that animals and plants don’t become isolated into ever-smaller populations.

I don’t think those findings do have “big implications”, because the important of reduced genetic variation in urban environments is unclear, particularly when the genes assayed have no clear connection with natural selection. And the import of losing half of your genetic diversity is also questionable: after all, a single fertilize female contains half of the “heritability” of an entire population. Everything rests on whether evolution by natural selection depends on very low-frequency genetic variants, present only in big populations, and we don’t really know if this is the case.  And the above study is in white-footed mice, only one species among millions, and only for populations in urban environments. That’s not to denigrate it, just to point out that its relevance to nonurban nature is unclear and its relevance to evolution is equally unclear.

You can read the Miles et al. study at the link (here), and having read it, I wasn’t impressed, since the authors themselves don’t come to nearly as strong a conclusion as does New Scientist. Here’s from the paper’s conclusions:

Although our review of the literature with quantitative analyses of published urban population genetic data sets demonstrates trends towards increased genetic drift and reduced gene flow, these patterns were not significant and were not universally seen across taxa. In fact, over a third of published studies show no negative effects of urbanization on genetic diversity and differentiation, including studies supporting urban facilitation models at a much higher proportion than previously realized. How populations and species respond to urbanization clearly depends on the natural history of the taxa investigated, the number and location of cities being sampled, and the molecular techniques used to characterize population genetic structure.

In other words, although two-thirds of the studies showed reduced variation or increased inter-population differentiation, these patterns were not significantly different from non-urban populations.  And if those differences were not significant, you needn’t start speculating about genetic drift. The authors conclude simply that different species show different genetic patterns when living in urban environments.

Miles’s statement that “genetic drift can definitely be a significant driver of evolution” is ambiguous, because she doesn’t say what she means by “significant” or by “evolution” (is she talking just about patterns of molecular evolution, like genetic diversity, or other types of evolution?)

New Scientist, in other words, fails to make the case that genetic drift has changed our view of how evolution operates, much less that it’s modified the modern synthetic theory of evolution. We already knew that small populations lose genetic variation because of genetic drift, and that’s been standard lore for decades. The real novel claims about drift—that it facilitates adaptive evolution, that it’s an important driver of speciation, and that it explains punctuated patterns in the fossil record—have disappeared because of the absence of both data and theory supporting those claims.

I am weary of going after New Scientist, and this may be my last critique of that issue. But be aware that virtually every one of the other nine points is exaggerated as well. Move along folks—nothing to see here.

The intellectual vacuity of New Scientist’s evolution issue: 3. The supposed importance of epigenetics in evolution

September 28, 2020 • 11:00 am

I’ll continue on with New Scientist‘s 13-section claim that the modern theory of evolution needs a reboot (see previous posts here and here), though I don’t know how much longer I can stand their uninformed palaver written by incurious journalists. Today we’l take up section 4: “There is more to inheritance than just genes”, which emphasizes the importance of epigenetic changes in evolution. The article appeared in this special issue of the rag magazine:

As I’ve written many times before, epigenetic changes are not good candidates for an inherited basis for evolutionary change, mainly because the vast majority of epigenetic modifications of DNA—usually via methylating DNA bases—disappear within one generation, as the DNA effaces the epigenetic markers during sexual reproduction. A few epigenetically produced traits can persist for a few generations, but that’s not a good basis for permanent evolutionary change, and certainly not a general explanation of adaptation. In fact, we know the genetic basis of adaptation in many cases, and it’s nearly 100% due to changes in the DNA sequence, not to epigenetic modification of the DNA sequence. (Lactose tolerance in pastoral human populations is one example.)

To support the claim that epigenetics is important in evolution, author Carrie Arnold mentions the shopworn example of pregnant Dutch women, deprived of food by the Nazis, giving birth to children who became unhealthy adults, with high levels of obesity, diabetes, and so on. Besides this not being an example of adaptive evolutionary change, it’s still not certain that the changes in the kids were produced by epigenetic modification of the DNA. The pregnant mothers were the ones who passed on the traits, and the fetuses could have been affected by the mother’s physiology, not by changes in her DNA. (It’s telling that the children of undernourished fathers alone didn’t show the changes.) There may have been some epigenetic changes, or maternal effects, in that the grandchildren seem to be affected too, but that’s where the train of changes comes to a stop.

Then Arnold mentions an experiment with which I wasn’t familiar, but supposedly demonstrated epigenetic changes that persisted for many generation—25, to be precise:

Subsequent studies in plants and animals suggest that epigenetic inheritance is more common than anyone had expected. What’s more, compared with genetic inheritance, it has some big advantages. Environments can change rapidly and dramatically, but genetic mutations are random, so often require generations to take hold. Epigenetic marks, by contrast, are created in minutes or hours. And because they result from environmental change, they are often adaptive, boosting the survival of subsequent generations.

Take the pea aphid. It is capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction, and comes in two varieties: winged and wingless. When scientists exposed a group of genetically identical pea aphids to ladybirds, the proportion of winged aphids increased from a quarter to a half. This adaptation, which helped them escape the predatory ladybirds, persisted for 25 generations. The aphid DNA didn’t mutate, the only change was epigenetic.

So I “took” the pea aphid, reading the paper that supposedly showed persistent epigenetic variation over 25 generations. Click on the screenshot below to get the paper (from the journal Heredity):

It’s a long and somewhat tedious read, but there are two points to make.

1.) The plastic response to the predator—growing wings (an adaptation that’s genetically encoded)—did not persist for 25 generations on its own. In fact, if you remove the predator, the stimulus for growing wings, the population becomes wingless again within a single generation. So we do not have a case of epigenetic markers persisting on their own for many generations, much less two generations.

2.) There is no evidence that the production of winged forms is caused by epigenetic modification of the DNA, and the authors admit this.

In other words, everything that Arnold says or implies about this experiment is misguided.

The experiment was started with a single clonal population of aphids, that is, parthenogenetically produced individuals from a single female. The population thus lacked genetic variation except for new mutations that could have occurred after the experiment started. One part of the population was the experimental section, exposed to predatory ladybirds. That one produced winged individuals immediately at a proportion of about 50% of the population. This proportion remained stable for 27 generations. Producing wings in the presence of predators is adaptive, of course, as you can flee them, and not producing wings when the predator is absent is also presumably adaptive, as there’s a metabolic and reproductive cost of producing wings you don’t use. Thus the switching between wings and winglessness is an adaptive plasticity, and is presumably coded (not epigenetically!) in the aphids’ DNA.

The control line, lacking ladybirds, stayed at about 25% winged individuals for 25 generations.

At three intervals, the authors took aphids from the experimental line and put them in an environment without predators. If the epigenetic markers persisted in the absence of the predator, and through meiosis, you’d expect these “reversion” lines to still show a higher frequency of winged individuals. They didn’t. They basically reverted to the control level of winglessness within a single generation, presumably because the switch for growing wings (ladybirds) wasn’t there.

So what we see is that to get the adaptive trait, wings, to persist, you need the stimulus to be there constantly. The presence of the predator somehow induces the aphids to grow wings, just as the presence of fish in a pond causes some rotifers to grow fish-repelling spines. And when you take the predator away, the aphids switch back to the wingless form. Here’s a plot showing the frequency of wings in the experimental population (red line), in the control predator-less population,  (black line) and the reverted population in which predators were removed (blue line):

(From paper): Proportions of winged adult aphids (mean ± SE) across generations of the experimental evolution with predators (in red), without predators (in black) and in branch lines for which predators were removed after generations 3, 13, and 22 (in blue). “*” or “NS” denote the significance (P < 0.05, or P > 0.05, respectively) of differences between controls (without predator, black dots) and branch lines after predator removal (blue dots). The vertical black dotted line indicates the time of initial predator introduction in the treatment lines

Unlike the Dutch situation, or others that report persistence of environmentally induced changes for a few generations, in this case the induced change, the presence of wings, reverts to control levels within a generation. We do not see the kind of trait persistence here that epigenetics advocates tout as important in making the phenomenon important in evolution.

And indeed, we don’t even know if the switch from winglessness to wings is an epigenetic change, as opposed to some chemical change that occurs in the aphids when they sense the presence of predators that turns on “wing-making genes”. (That’s how it works in rotifers: when a fish eats a rotifer, it releases chemicals into the water that induce the other rotifers to produce spines. That’s not an epigenetic modification of the DNA.) If you think that any environmental change is “epigenetic”, then yes, this one could be, but that’s not the way the cool kids construe “epigenetic” these days. It’s taken to mean “alterations of the DNA structure”, which is what journalist Arnold means by mentioning “epigenetic marks [that] are created in minutes or hours.”

There’s one twist in the experiment as well: in the lines subject to predators, the plasticity of individuals became reduced; that is, they were less likely to respond to changes in predators with changes in wings. The paper’s authors impute this to epigenetics, but it could well be due to selection occurring on mutations that arose in the predator lines. That is, since predation was omnipresent, there was less selection pressure to maintain a “switching system,” and your plasticity could erode. To maintain a switch between wings and winglessness, the lineage has to experience periodic bouts of predation alternated with bouts of no predation. So the loss of plasticity itself also says nothing about whether epigenetic markers were accumulating in the DNA.

And, at the end, the paper’s authors admit that we don’t know whether this switch is due to epigenetic modification of the DNA, as the New Scientists reporter claims.  From the Heredity paper:

We can thus tentatively attribute the decline in plasticity observed in lines that were exposed to predators for many generations to the action of some non-genetically transmitted information (i.e. information not encoded in the DNA sequence). The hypothesis that observed phenotypic changes were caused by reversible epigenetic changes is thereby more likely but in order to be confirmed, this hypothesis would require to be backed up by molecular analyses.

I can find nothing in this paper that even suggests that epigenetic changes were happening to the aphids’ DNA, much less any kind of inherited changes that persist for more than one generation. This paper is certainly not an example of what New Scientist says it is.

This is the third buzzwordy phenomenon tendered by New Scientist as an exciting new finding that can modify the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. And it’s the third one that is wrong. I am growing weary, and will see if I need to persist in debunking further claims in the article. Rest assured, though, that most of them are even weaker than the three I’ve discussed. But what does New Scientist care? They want clicks, not accuracy, and I fear that I’m wasting my time. I’d rather write about the new paper on consciousness in crows.

At least the New Scientist article admits that epigenetics is controversial:

The extent of epigenetic inheritance is contested. Some sceptics point out that, during mammalian reproduction, the creation of sperm and egg cells involves erasing epigenetic markers. Others argue that epigenetic transmission across generations is extremely widespread and useful. In plants, for example, it can account for differences in fruit size, flowering time and many other survival-boosting traits.

Yes, but it’s because the transmission across generations lasts about two or three generations at most that is why epigenetic modification by itself is not a good candidate for the “replicator” that produces adaptive evolution.

Lunchtime!

The intellectual vacuity of New Scientist’s evolution issue: 1. Genetic plasticity

September 26, 2020 • 11:30 am

As I reported the other day, New Scientist has a special issue on evolution (photo below), which apparently consists of their admission that Darwin was right after all, along with a “feature special” described as follows:

Our modern conception of evolution started with Charles Darwin and his idea of natural selection – “survival of the fittest” – to explain why certain individuals thrive while others fail to leave a legacy. Then came genetics to explain the underlying mechanism: changes in organisms caused by random mutations of genes. Now this powerful picture is changing once more, as discoveries in genetics, epigenetics, developmental biology and other fields lend a new complexity and richness to our greatest theory of nature. Find out more in this 12-page feature special.

The article, which you can’t access online—though judicious inquiry will yield you a copy—consists of 13 numbered scientific areas that are supposedly prompting a reboot of modern evolutionary theory. I’m not going to reprise all of them, as I’ve done so already about many of the “buzzwordy” areas, including epigenetics and niche construction, but I will single out, over the next week, several of the areas that are, to my mind, exaggerated or grossly misrepresented. For readers who’ve said that New Scientist isn’t so bad, my response is, “Well, its coverage of evolution, at least, is dreadful if you know things about modern evolutionary biology.”

True, in some of these areas the article pays lip service to the fact that they’re “controversial”, but the impression one gets is that evolutionary biology is teeming not just with new ideas, but with new ideas that are non-Darwinian and promise a dramatic revision of the theory. The problem is that most of these new areas are either mistakenly conceived or don’t constitute much of a change in evolutionary theory. In fact, none of them do more than put a new duckling under the wing of Darwinism, and none of them replace the mother duck.

Today’s target is GENETIC PLASTICITY, the first of the supposedly “new” areas of evolutionary biology. It’s described under the clickbait-y title “Genes Aren’t Destiny.”

My immediate response is that we’ve known about genetic plasticity for over a century. But let’s back up: what is genetic plasticity?

It’s simple: it’s the observation that for many genes, their expression depends on the environments in which the organism that carries them (and hence the genes themselves) develops or experiences.  There are a gazillion examples. For some genes, you get a permanent effect depending on the environment obtaining during the organism’s growth. One example, which I and two colleagues used in an experiment on the temperature flies encounter in the wild, is the mutant allele white-blood, which affects eye color. The expression of the mutation is sensitive to temperature during just a narrow window of time when eye color forms in the pupal stage. If the temperature is high, the eye can turn out very light yellow or even white, but if the temperature is lower, the eye is darker, down to dark purple. After this sensitive period, the eye color stays the same for the fly’s life. The color is said to be “plastic with respect to temperature.”

Likewise, if you don’t get enough food as a kid, you’ll be permanently small after puberty. That’s because the genes involved in creating “height” are sensitive to the amount of nutrition the organism gets, making “human height” a plastic trait. There are a gazillion genes that are plastic in related ways; in fact, I know of very few genes whose expression isn’t affected by the environment (perhaps genes for polydactyly in humans and cats are examples of the latter).

Some genes can vary their expression over an organism’s lifetime. Cats get thicker coats in winter and revert to shorter coats in summer: the genes producing hair are reversibly plastic to temperature. Snowshoe hare become white in winter and brown in summer, a reversible case of pigment genes sensitive to temperature.

The fact is that since the advent of Mendlian genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, geneticists have recognized the plasticity of genes and the traits to which they contribute. The terms back then were that genes had “variable expressivity” or “variable penetrance” depending on the environment. (White-blood was described in 1945.) The idea of plasticity is not at all new, and was featured in the founding works of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s. It was an integral part of our modern view of development, which has long recognized that almost no traits are produced as invariant by genes acting independently of the environment, while the expression of most genes and traits involve an interaction between genes and environment.

I give you this primer because New Scientist, in #1 of its litany, pretends this idea and its instantiation in organisms is something new and exciting. In fact, they say, citing the Human Genome Project, that we now realize that this kind of interaction refutes genetic determinism:

The more we learn about genetics, the clearer it becomes that “genetic determinism” – the idea that genes and genes alone fix our destiny – is a myth. A given set of genes has the potential to produce a variety of observable characteristics, known as phenotypes, depending on the environment. An Arctic fox changes its coat colour with the seasons. The presence of predators causes water flea Daphnia longicephala to grow a protective helmet and spines.

The power of flexibility

Even a change in social environment can prompt a shift. In the European paper wasp (Polistes dominula), for example, when the queen dies, the oldest worker transforms herself into a new queen. But she isn’t the only one to respond. Seirian Sumner at University College London and her colleagues found that the death of a colony’s queen results in temporary changes in the expression of genes in all workers, as though they are jostling genetically for succession. This flexibility is key to the survival of the colony and the species, says Sumner.

The power of genetic plasticity can be seen in the humble house finch. In the past 50 years, it has colonised the eastern half of North America, moving into habitats ranging from pine forests near the Canadian border to swampland in the Gulf of Mexico. The finch’s underlying developmental plasticity provided the raw material from which novel features evolved, including a range of new colourings and other physical and behavioural traits, says David Pfennig at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Stop thinking about this as being like genes or environment, because it’s a combination of the two,” he says.

That’s all she wrote (the author of this section is Carrie Arnold).

Let us note that some plasticity, like hair growth in mammals during winter and coat color in snowshoe hares, has evolved: the changeability of the genes in new environments is an adaptive phenomenon (creating more warmth with longer hair and better camouflage in winter). Plasticity is not always a given and inherent characteristic of genes and traits, but in many cases has evolved as organisms have experienced different environments during their species’ evolutionary history, making lability an advantage over fixity.

Further, one can construe “genetic determinism” in two ways, which the article conflates. First, one can see it the proportion of variation in one trait in one population of organisms that’s caused by the variation among the genetic endowment of individuals. The proportion of variation among individuals in a population due to variation in their genes is called the heritability of that trait, and ranges from 0% to 100%.  In humans, for example, the heritability of height in many populations is about 80%, meaning that about 80% of the variation in human tallness that we see in a given population is due to variation in genes. This does not mean that height itself cannot be affected by the environment, for it clearly can (I used the example of nutrition above). But under the existing conditions in a population, one can construe the heritability as an index of genetic determinism in a given population under existing environments.

But one can also construe genetic determinism as the degree to which the expression of a trait or gene in an individual is affected by the environment. If this is what the article means, and I think it does, yes, plasticity does show that genes are not the be-all and end-all of a trait.

The important thing, though, is what I said above: THIS IS NOT NEW AT ALL!. It is simply either ignorant or mendacious of New Scientist to pretend that genetic plasticity is both a recent discovery and one that has revised neo-Darwinism. Genetic plasticity was recognized well before neo-Darwinism was formulated in the 1930s as a fusion of genetics, natural history, and evolution, because genetic plasticity was known since the very early days of genetics—almost since Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900.

So, if you are masochistic enough to read the entire New Scientist article, you can just move along when you get to point 1; nothing to see here.  It’s almost as if the authors touted the claim that the idea of natural selection (which really wasn’t widely accepted until the 1920s) is a new and exciting addition to Darwinism.

 

Another predatory journal in “deadly need” of a paper

June 17, 2020 • 8:30 am

I doubt that there’s a scientist alive who doesn’t get one of these predatory journal pleas on a regular basis. They’re never in my field (this one is in agriculture and soil science!), and they are in deadly need of a 2-page opinion piece for the next issue of their sub-sub-substandard journal.

I’d be tempted to submit something humorous, but a. it’s work and b. it would debase the scientific enterprise. Instead, I’ll show you the email for your delectation.

If you look up the location of the journal’s “offices” in San Francisco, you’ll find they are virtual offices, providing only the appearance of an office with a mailing address and someone to answer the telephone.

In other words, although the journal is real, it’s a predatory journal that exploits scientists who need papers on their c.v.s, making money by charging exorbitant publication fees. I suspect the real offices are overseas given the fractured English in the email (“deadly need”, “please tack the below link”, probably meaning “tick”), which of course means the email is lying.

Perhaps an enterprising reader would want to call up “Emma Megan” at the number and see what transpires.

World Journal of Agriculture and Soil Science <agri@irissciences.com>
Wed 6/17/2020 5:38 AM
To: Jerry Coyne

Dear Dr. Jerry A Coyne,

Greetings!

Hope you are doing very well!

Well, we are in deadly need of only one article to release Volume 5 Issue 2 before End of this Month. Is it possible for you to support us with your 2-page Opinion or Mini Review for this issue?

Please tack the below link to visit on our journal website
https://irispublishers.com/wjass/

Please acknowledge this email to submit your manuscript.

Emma Megan | Managing Editor
World Journal of Agriculture and Soil Science (WJASS) | [ISSN: 2641-6379]
Iris Publishers LLC,315 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94104, USA.
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